Is it time to re-evaluate neurosis? The work of Wilhelm Reich

Tom Lennard

Is there such a thing as a mentally ill society? This question was, using slightly different words, posed by Russell Brand during an episode of The Trews in regards to the emotional fragility of the singer Sinead O’ Connor. There isn’t time to discuss the ins and outs of the video here, nor the subsequent response from O’ Connor. To believe that a society is mentally ill is to understand that all, or at least a significant number of human beings, are subject to irrational drives, drives that make those humans unwell, or suffer difficulties in their personal interactions. How and why this happens is another question.  Eclectic and eccentric psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, tried to develop and extend the Freudian concept of neurosis, and use it to analyse society. It stands to reason that anyone wanting to find out if our society is mentally ill will need concepts that can understand the personal as well as the social, and draw out the “how” and the “why.”

Much like his mentor and influence Sigmund Freud, Reich was concerned with sexual urges. In the 20th century psycho-analysis made the study and treatment of irrational drives its focus. Both clinicians considered that children were imprinted with sexuality as they developed, and the problems that adults brought with them to clinic came from their sexual development. The problem of mental health thus had a family locus. The harsh realities of life conflicted with the young’s instinctive urges and desires: pushed so deep were many of these urges that they became unconscious of them. This was the basis of “neurosis.” It was the analyst’s job to make these desires known to the “analysand.” For Freud this was enough – or at least there were some desires that could never be resolved – the “reality principle” was always going to be too strong. For Reich however this was not enough. He started to treat the person’s libido; in other words he sough to help the patient/client get to a state of healthy sexuality.  Reich had cultivated an interest in Marxism in his early career, and thus when the world appeared to impede people’s happiness and social functioning, this meant for him that the world itself needed to change. Already at this point, we can see how following his logic society is itself the patient.

Like Marx, Reich’s work was indebted to Feuerbach’s concept of alienation. Alienation – if somewhat simply explained – is the idea that things that naturally belong together are separated. Moral dualisms such as (Sex-Pol Essays xv) spiritual versus physical love, tenderness versus eroticism are not necessary opposites for Reich, but things that can co-exist. When opposed to each other in our mindset, this conflict forces certain desires  to become deviant ones. Those people that have these deviant desires become anxious and neurotic about their social interactions. The Function of the Orgasm contains several pages dedicated to the questions Reich was asked by curious 20th century students and attendees to his lectures – questions that from a 21st century perspective appear quite naïve. The mistreatment and oppression of women’s natural sexuality, in addition to the problems the young had with coping with their sexual maturity, was evidence of conflicted people living sexually unhealthy lives. What is more, this arrangement suited the ruling class. For it was not just the control of economic processes that kept the poor impoverished, but the sexual neurosis inherent in bourgeois morality. The icon of this neurosis was the ideal god-fearing, middle class family, who he attempts to critique in his early Sex-Pol Essays. Therefore to sum up, our society’s mental ill health was stratified along class and gender lines, and its people were not fully aware of some of the causes of their own repression.

Whereas many psychoanalysts turned away from studying “somatic” or bodily problems, Reich thought that these symptoms in patients could sometimes be put down to disturbances in mental health. But although he thought bodily and psychological disturbances had an innate connection, he was clear not to use psychoanalytic theory and method for explaining everything. Russia’s arid revolution was guilty of an over-reliance on economic concerns. Despite having a pertinent, in his opinion, conception of social conflict, Marxists had misconstrued psychoanalysis as a middle class luxury, and lacking materialist basis. To counter this, in Sex-Pol Essays, he points out that left wing theorists should stick to interpreting social events sociologically or socio-politically. A strike, for instance, cannot be caused truly by the neurosis of workers who feel threatened by a “paternalist” factory owner. The irrational or unexpected behaviours that either strikers or managers display deserve psychological analysis. Furthermore, he notes how Engels demand that in order to be materialist, a philosophy has to be based on the organic, or at least on life processes. Both sex (at least its limited form “reproduction”) and labour are necessary conditions for continuous human existence. This makes a philosophy based on them materialist. Thus Reich spends a great deal of time in later work trying to weave together the idea of a “sex-economy.” The type of mentally ill society we live in is a “sex economy,” and neurosis a key problem. Neurosis serves to explain how a society degenerates into civil war and hatred, and appeared as a factor for the rise of Nazism in his native Austria – widely discussed in his work The Mass Psychology of Fascism.

It might be important at this point to go over what has already been discussed. Reich asserts that the “the reality principle” benefits the ruling class. Society is mentally ill: the conditions for producing neurotic individuals repeat themselves again and again. But the problem is also one of economic forces. Thus for Reich, a progressive politics needs progressive mental health ideas to ensure its success. If we accept that much of this damaging neurosis occurs to people whilst they are growing up, then sexual education is an important concern. Like many medical professionals he saw that prevention is vital. It was “easier to prevent a neurosis than to cure it” (The Mass Psychology of Fascism).

However Reich’s conceptions were much maligned. It is notable that The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders removed the term “neurosis” in 1980, ostensibly because it was too vague, and smacked off Freudian methods. Like Marxism, at least in its Soviet incarnation, psychoanalysis feels like a product of the last century. The methods of modern psychologists are far more mixed and some consider psychoanalysis a historical artefact. Sometimes on its 20th century journey it took dark turns, and Freud’s followers fought jealously over the right way to continue his legacy – Reich, and his legacy, became a casualty of this battle. If we regard society to still be mentally ill, we have to accept a berth of changes to sexual habit and close relationships in recent years.

Despite many flaws, Reich’s work presents us with an opportunity to link problems of psychological and sexuality to issues of work and labour. Neurosis may be discredited by many clinicians, but it presents us with a way of looking at mental health within a given social context, alongside other tools and methods. But neurosis needs considerable updating if it is used to explain the post war period. The society in which we live in may or not be mentally ill, depending on ones criteria or ones definitions. But the task of changing society for the better cannot ignore how sexuality is produced, and cannot take the present situation as an adequate one, when so many within society still suffer.

The Mass Psychology of Fascism
Sex-Pol Essays
The Function of the Orgasm
The Trews:

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